I don’t have any interesting domestic taxi stories because I’m not much of a taxi guy. I think I’ve gone years at a stretch where I didn’t take a taxi in Montreal. I’m not sure why.
Then, a few years ago, I suddenly started getting into taxis. I was taking three or four taxi rides a week. But there was one thing — I could never let the taxi driver know where I lived. I wouldn’t give him my address, I’d have him drop me off at the nearest corner. Or sometimes the one second nearest.
I don’t know why that was. It’s not like I thought the drivers had any interest in where I lived. I think it was just something about privacy. Or maybe dissatisfaction that I had never become an underworld spy — so to make up for it I would go through the motions of not leaving a trail. Oddly, this seemed pretty normal to me at the time and I didn’t think much about it until I met M and she pointed out how weird it was.
On with the rides.
Budapest, 1995. The airport smells like urine. Men in improbably green fatigues stand around with large guns slung over their shoulders. We manage to get some Forints and figure out how to take the shuttle bus into town. We haven’t the faintest idea what to expect. Everything is a weird mix of old and new. Stinky old airport, shiny new shuttle bus, old roads that lead into new roads that lead back into old roads. Flashy billboards in front of decrepit and dilapidated buildings. Decrepit and dilapidated billboards in front of shockingly white new buildings. We don’t even know where the shuttle will let us off aside from the vague notion of “downtown.” Not that it matters, since the only map we have is a couple of grainy images in a battered travel guide and besides, we don’t have reservations anywhere.
The shuttle stops at an intersection and everyone gets off. We’re surrounded by 18th century Hausmannesque buildings, as if we’re in Paris, but the roads are worn and signs are all incomprehensible. Cars and motorcycles whiz by. A few small delivery trucks rumble along. I spot an old blue Trabant spewing smoke and farting sounds out of its tailpipe. OK, now what?
Minneapolis, 1996. The plane gets in late on a cold and wet evening in March. I climb into a taxi and gave the address for the hotel. Along the dark highway from the airport the city looms in the distance like some glittering tiara in the night.
I’m here for business — two days observing a one-on-one training session between a customer and one of our company’s trainers, with the goal of finding the knowledge gaps so I can improve the product manuals. The trainer will arrive on an even later flight, so I’m on my own for now.
The cold mist on the windshield streaks the lights of the approaching city. It is dark and quiet except for the low whoosh of the car on the damp highway and the occasional whap of the wipers.
The driver tunes the radio to a talk show. The host is complaining about gun control, going on with the tired old saw about the country needing more guns not fewer, and all that yadda-yadda about cold dead hands. After a few minutes it is getting to be a bit much, and even the driver is getting tired of it. He mumbles “asshole” and changes to a different station.
There we find another talk show — this one is hosted by none other than Oliver North of Iran-Contra fame. Ollie talks me all the way into town, with the driver’s blessing. Welcome to America. Watch your back.
Cincinnati, 1999. Three Montrealers with a few hours to kill. We step out of the downtown hotel and try to flag down a taxi but there seems to be some strange rules about taxi hailing in this town, because nobody stops. Finally a tired-looking grey Chevy Caprice heaves alongside and stops with a gasp. At the wheel is an enormous creature in a greasy ball cap, dirty green work pants (unbuttoned), a grim looking threadbare t-shirt, and a vest that has “Vietnam Vet” written on it. He looks like a cross between Michael Moore on a bad day and Jabba the Hut. He’s gnawing on a chicken leg from a KFC bucket on the front passenger seat. “Whar ya goin?” he grunts.
We all squeeze into the back seat because the entire front of the taxi is consumed by empty fast food containers. There are burger wrappers, pizza boxes, various paper plates and red-checkered cardboard platters, and a slurry of soda cans.
The driver is so large that he’s had to push his seat all the way back, forcing us to cram in with our knees pressed against its fake leather. The taxi smells of cold grease and stale sticky cola. He steps on the gas and we push out into the traffic, heading north towards the university side of town. Along the way we pass through a desperately poor neighbourhood where people with drawn and sullen faces shuffle along the sidewalk. Around a bend and the lawns grow green again.
The taxi stops at the requested corner. Someone presses a few bills into his oily hand, which is clutching a half-eaten chicken wing. No one asks for change.